China, May 7, 2000
Ain't no rice in Beijing, just way too many noodles
You think I'm eating a lot of rice here? I know you've heard the
'all the rice in China' line (or was it tea?), and you've all
eaten Chinese take-out with rice in the States, but I'm pretty much
rice-free in Beijing.
The reason is simple. This far north, I'm not in rice country, that's in the south, near Hong Kong. I'm in wheat country. What do you make with wheat? No, not bread, which seems rare to non-existent, but noodles.
Remember when you were small, and told that Marco Polo brought back noodle technology to Italy? Well, before I got here, I went along with the idea, but I was skeptical. If not pasta, what did the Italians eat before noodles? And even after noodles, what did they put on 'em before the arrival of the tomato from the New World?
After my third day in Beijing, and the sixth meal of a bowl of noodles with a light meat and vegetable topping, I realized exactly how the Italians survived. Every single northern Chinese meal, vs. southern Chinese dishes, is noodle based. Usually served in a bowl with mixed toppings, the noodles can be rice, wheat, or egg and each are prepared in front of your eyes.
No, not from the box, we're talking a guy kneading the dough and dropping the super-fresh noodles he just pulled, into a cauldron of boiling water. After a few minutes, the fresh stuff cooks way faster than the box variety, its scooped into the bowl. The toppings are added just before your handed this steaming mass, which usually sets you back around a dollar or less.
The trick, once you have the food, is to mix it for a while before you eat it. The toppings are usually cold, the broth cool, and the noodles boiling hot. Mixing the ingredients will cool the noodles and heat the toppings, while mixing the flavor all around.
Once it is an edible temperature, the slurping begins. Chinese do not eat noodles, or anything else for that matter, quietly. They don't spin the noodle on a fork, or break them in half before boiling. They use the chopsticks, which I'm damn good at by now, to pull a mass of noodles to their mouths. Then, with suction forces that not even scientists can explain, they suck the entire noodle group up, long tailing noodles and all.
Eating is very messy, with a few of my shirts no longer fit for public viewing and the restaurant floors scattered with bones, spills, and the random cat. Messy, but one of my favorite activities in this timeless land.
Hey, I've even dragged dates (before I met Jingmei) to my favorite noodle shop, well more like a stand, just to see how'd they react. Most noodle shops are not much more than a table to knead on, a kettle of boiling water, a few eating tables and stools. No walls, roof, or even tablecloth usually, just you, your food, and all the other customers staring at the laowai who likes local food.
Occasionally, being in such a public eye, I get a little annoyed, especially when someone walks right up to my table and stares at me. I usually shoo them away with one of my three Chinese phrases (something like, 'What the hell you looking at!?), or, if they are extra nosy, I pull out my camera, wave, and take their photo. Luckily, most shop owners, once they see I don't want to be disturbed, will keep the fools from getting to close to the hunger-crazed foreigner.